I tell you the story without real names because the names are widely known and the story is probably a lie. Most recruiting stories are lies or, as Hemmingway said of art, purposeful distortions that strike close to truth without the emcumbrance of facts. These lies, these truths, speak loudly of a cynicism that debases our university system, where dignity is the victim. Is there dignity in begging and 18-year-old giant to play ball for State U.?
His agent - who resented the term "agent" and wanted to be called a "counselor," but was a parasitic flesh peddler - told the adolescent giant to go West, to get out of the ghetto. Out West, a coach arranged the pleasures of a prostitute for the parasite, who then called South to see how a summer job on a horse farm was shaping up. He wanted $1,000 a week for his ward, and could they put a loop on a barn?
They bid against each other, the West against the South, until a political star in the Midwest tried to rescue his city's university. He sent a state plane, flying on taxpayers' money, to pick up the agent and his merchandise. Thirty local businessmen had agreed to chip in $100 a month - pocket change for these movers and shakers, many of them gamblers - for the four years the ghetto giant would wear their city's name on his chest. That figures out to $144,000.
The kid went to school in the East.
I haven't heard the lies about what the school in the East did for the young giant, and I don't want to. I'm sick of it all. Recruiting stories once seemed to me amusing tales of sly maneuvers, surely not true at all, the kind of lies fishermen bandy about. I was wrong. The stories are true enough to be proof that recruiting makes college athletics ugly.
Recruiting ought to be abolished, and there is a way to do it.
The college should draft high school football and basketball players the same way the professional teams draft collegians. Then, out of the millions of dollars the schools take in at games, they should pay the players a nice salary above today's standard coolie wages of scholarship, room and board.
I confess to having been a dreamer who tried desperately to see college athletics as the purity of strong and dedicated young men and women locked in earnest competition, with a loving cup to the winner. I have written that drivel in defending the collegians against the pro games. I blush at the memory. But now, in my old age, I deal with big-time college athletics as very big business.
Not that there is anything wrong with college sports as big business. It ought to be. For more than 100 year Americans have proved they want colleges to provide athletic entertainment. And it is just as properly a function of our colleges in this sports-crazy country to provide young athletes with training for professional sports careers as it is to prepare budding poets for a life's wrestle with the muses.
With the rewards of national publicity, money from bowl games and TV contracts and increased donations from lathered-up alumni amounting to millions of dollars each year, recruiting the very best athletes becomes a tastless, demeaning dance of 250 grown men whose futures hang on convincing an 18-year-old halfback with acne that good ol'State U. is the place to go. So cheating goes on.
Ralph Sampson's recruiting was a veritable picnic of good sense compared to the frenzied chases after Winford Boynes and Albert King, Elvis Peacock and Kent Benson, to name four of 4,000 assaults on dignity. No one accused Sampson of taking illegal inducements to sign with the University of Virginia; no one said his parents had been brought off, and his high school coach made it clear he would be no part of a deal that made him an assistant college coach provided, of course, "you bring Ralph along."
Yet Ralph Sampson is the perfect illustration of the need for a college draft to replace the current circus of shame that leaves everyone feeling tainted. Sampson has no academic pretensions. He will attend Virginia only until he is ready to go into NBA. It is a business deal for him, and that is fine, once you accept the reality that big-time college sports is not Frank Merriwell at Yale but Ralph Sampson at Virginia.
The top 900 high school football players should be placed in a talent pool, as should the top 500 high school basketball players, and then the 30 football schools and 90 basketball schools in the NCAA's Big League (to give it a name) should draft players the same way the pros do now - in inverse order of their won-lost records, the cellar-dwellers picking first, on through to the champions.
Corruption inevitably would touch this system, too, but at least it would not be an invited guest as it is now in the hypocritical recruiting process. If a player's freedom of choice of schools is given up, as he later gives up his choice of pro teams, he yet knows he will be paid and trained for the future (to guard against failure as an athlete, a kid can take classes if he wants to).
Ralph Sampson was honest. Honest enough to say Virginia is only a two-year warm-up for the pros. Honest enough to say he had no academic ambitions. At 7-foot-3 3/4, he is a wonderful basketball player who may be the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now all we need is for our schools to be nonest enough to say they are in the business of selling basketball and football tickets, not at all concerned with turning an 18-year-old Kareem into a poet.
After all, we don't care if Elvin Hayes reads Kafka as long as he stuffs Sikma.